OLYMPIA – A bipartisan group of state lawmakers Monday began making the case for an overhaul of Washington’s education system.
“All in all, we think this is the first comprehensive reform of the public education system in at least three decades,” said Sen. Fred Jarrett, D-Mercer Island.
Lawmakers began a full-court press for the bill Monday, with the first of several hearings.
Mary Jean Ryan, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, called Senate Bill 5444 landmark legislation that “offers a way out of the cellar of national education statistics in which we find ourselves.”
The plan, hashed out in many hearings last year, would:
•More broadly define basic education and commit the state to paying for it.
•Dramatically rewrite how teachers are paid and trained.
•Boost from 19 to 24 the number of credits needed for high school graduation.
•Boost the number of state-paid classes in high school from five a day to six.
•Add help for low-income schools and students learning English.
Supporters say the changes would mean higher pay for teachers, billions of dollars more for schools, and the state covering far more of the cost of education than each district’s local taxpayers. Ultimately, they estimate, the proposal would mean about 50 percent more money for Washington’s schools. But many of the changes wouldn’t start until 2011, and even then, would be phased in over six years.
“Getting the structural changes in place is much more important than getting a specific (budget) number this year,” said state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina. The state, he said, can start adding money as the economy improves. “You’re not trying to just put more money into the system. You’re trying to change how the system works.”
Trying to boost school spending 50 percent during a deep recession, said Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, “doesn’t meet the straight-face test.”
The proposal faces stiff competition from a plan backed by the associations representing school principals, teachers, administrators, non-teaching school staffers and school boards. Calling itself the Full Funding Coalition, the group proposes linking educational accountability to state funding. If the state isn’t funding schools adequately, they argue, then those schools shouldn’t be held to the same standards.
The Full Funding Coalition also suggests ways to raise the billions of dollars more it wants to put into schools over the next six years. The state could raise property taxes, for example. Or it could devote extra tax revenue over about 2.5 percent a year into a special fund for schools.
Mary Lindquist, head of the state teachers union, told lawmakers Monday that teachers and parents are worried about the basics: Will they have jobs? Will their schools close? She blasted SB 5444 for promising more money but not proposing a way to deliver it.
“This bill offers a distraction,” she said. “It’s divisive, it’s complex, it derails us from the conversation we should be having about critical funding.”
Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, is one of the lawmakers who wants to see a dedicated stream of dollars set aside for schools. And she suggested that voters would agree.
“The people of the state of Washington, over and over and over again, have said the education of their children is their No. 1 priority,” McAuliffe said.
Pflug and many other Republicans are pushing a different strategy: Pay for schools first, and then ask voters if they’re willing to pay more for the other services that state government provides.
“I think the students of Washington have kind of been abused by being held up as the poster child that justifies the need for every tax increase we’ve seen over the past decade,” she said.